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Is “Social Science” an Oxymoron? Will That Ever Change?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’ve been mulling over the potential, and limits, of social science again lately. One reason is that last month philosopher James Weatherall of the University of California at Irvine visited my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, to talk about his new book The Physics of Wall Street. Weatherall, who has a Ph.D. in physics as well as in philosophy, argued that the methods of physics can help make economics more rigorous. Then someone sent me an article in The Economist on how “data from social networks are making social science more scientific.”

Goaded by these optimistic claims, I decided to post thoughts about social science that I presented two years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education. From its inception, social science–which includes economics, sociology, anthropology, political science and social psychology—has struggled for respect. In the early 19th century, French philosopher Auguste Comte proposed a scientific hierarchy ranging from the physical sciences at the bottom up through biology to the “queen” of sciences, sociology, at the top. A science of human social behavior, Comte contended, could help humanity make moral and political decisions and construct more efficient, just governments.

Comte, who spent time in a sanitarium for mental illness, had admirers–notably John Stuart Mill–but he was viewed by many of his contemporaries as a crank. He died in 1857 without ever landing a full-time university post or indeed any steady employment. Today, social science receives much less federal funding than the biological and physical sciences do. Social scientists are accused of being “soft,” of trafficking in theories so lacking in precision and predictive power that they don’t deserve to be called scientific.

Some social scientists—I’ll call them “softies”—shrug off this criticism, because they identify less with physicists and chemists than with scholars in the humanities. Stevens Institute is a case in point: Social science falls within the jurisdiction of the Stevens College of Arts & Letters, which also encompasses philosophy, history, literature, music and my own humble discipline, science communication. As far as I can tell, my social-science colleagues aren’t seething with resentment at being lumped together with the humanities folks.

Other social scientists, “hardies,” yearn for and believe they can eventually attain the same status as, say, molecular biology. Softies and hardies have been fighting for as long as I can remember. In 1975, for example, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson contended in his blockbuster Sociobiology that social science would only become truly scientific by embracing evolutionary theory and genetics. Horrified softies denounced sociobiology as a throwback to social Darwinism and eugenics, two of the most noxious social applications of science.

The term “sociobiology” became so controversial that it is rarely used today, except by softies as an insult. Hardies nonetheless embraced the tenets of sociobiology. They tacked the term “evolutionary” to their fields—spawning disciplines such as evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics—and churned out conjectures about the adaptive origins of war and capitalism.

More recently, as the prestige of neuroscience has surged, hardies have discovered the benefits of including magnetic-resonance imaging and other brain-scanning experiments in grant proposals, and they have attached the prefix “neuro” to their disciplines, yielding coinages such as neuroeconomics and neuroanthropology.

Hardies also emulate the hardest science of all: physics. Thus we now have econophysics, which models economic activity with concepts borrowed from fluid dynamics, solid-state physics and statistical mechanics. (For a terrific overview, see the aforementioned The Physics of Wall Street.) This alliance has especially deep roots: Comte sometimes used the term “social physics” in lieu of sociology. But modern researchers, unlike Comte, can run their complex mathematical models on powerful computers.

Softies look askance at the aspirations of hardies—with good reason. The recent recession provides a powerful demonstration of social science’s limits. The world’s smartest economists, equipped with the most sophisticated mathematical models and powerful computers that money can buy, did not foresee—or at any rate could not prevent—the financial calamities that struck the United States and the rest of the world in 2008. As philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said: “Prayer may not be very efficient when compared to celestial mechanics, but it surely holds its own vis-à-vis some parts of economics.”

Even when fortified by the latest findings from neuroscience, genetics, and other fields, social science will never approach the precision and predictive power of the hard sciences. Physics addresses phenomena—electrons, elements, electromagnetism, the nuclear forces, gravity—that are relatively simple, stable and amenable to precise mathematical definition. Gravity works in exactly the same way whether you measure it in 17th-century England or 21st-century America, in Zambia or on Alpha Centauri. Every neutron is identical to every other neutron.

In contrast, the basic units of social systems—people—are all different from each other; each person who has ever lived is unique in ways that are not trivial but essential to our humanity. Each individual mind also keeps changing in response to new experiences—reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, watching Lord of the Rings, banging your head on the ice while playing pond hockey, having a baby, teaching freshman composition. Imagine how hard physics would be if every electron were the unique product of its entire history.

Societies also vary markedly across space and time. France in 2013 is radically different than it was in Comte’s era. The United States today is quite different than it was a century, a decade or a year ago. Social scientists are chasing a moving target, one they can never catch. As anthropologist and archetypal softy Clifford Geertz once wrote, social scientists can construct only “hindsight accounts of the connectedness of things that seem to have happened: pieced-together patternings, after the fact.”

Here is the biggest difference between social and hard science: Protons, plasmas and planets are oblivious to what scientists say about them. Social systems, on the other hand, consist of objects that watch television; listen to the radio; read newspapers, journals, books, and blogs; and consequently change their behavior. In other words, social-science theories can transform societies if people believe in them.

Even Comte made his mark. His writings inspired the founders of the republic of Brazil and the motto on the nation’s flag: “Ordem e Progress” (Order and Progress). More significantly, Comte influenced Marx, whose social theory profoundly altered the course of human history.

So we are left with a paradox: Although social science is in many respects quite weak, it can also be extraordinarily potent in terms of its impact, for ill or good, on our lives. Think of all the harm done in the name of Marx—and of social Darwinist and free-market theorists, from Herbert Spencer to Milton Friedman.

But social scientists can improve the world, too. Those I admire most combine rigorous empiricism with a resistance to absolute answers. These are researchers like anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who examines the behavior of primates and early humans for insights into modern gender roles; economist Jeffrey Sachs, who seeks ways to reduce third-world poverty; or political scientist Gene Sharp, an authority on nonviolent social activism.

Social scientists are especially dangerous when they insist—and convince others—that they have discovered absolute truths about humanity, truths that tell us what we are and even what we should be. Hence social scientists—more than any other scientists—should be humble, or at least modest, in making claims.

Here’s a more specific suggestion: Social scientists should consider identifying not with the harder sciences or the humanities but with engineering.

I started my career writing for an engineering magazine, and now I teach at an engineering school, so I know and respect engineers. They don’t seek “the truth,” a unique and universal explanation of a phenomenon or solution to a problem. In fact, engineers would scoff at such a formulation of their work. They seek merely answers to specific, localized, temporary problems, whether building a bridge with less steel or a more efficient solar panel or a smartphone with a bigger memory. Whatever works, works.

In the same way, social scientists should eschew the quest for truths about human behavior. They should instead focus more intensely on finding answers to specific problems, whether our current economic woes, the inefficiency of our health-care system or our reliance on military force to resolve disputes.

In spite of its weaknesses, social science—when applied wisely—can do even more than the hard sciences to make the world a better place. Comte was right about that.

Photo: Dieter Drescher, Flickr.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. K.D. Koratsky 5:41 pm 04/4/2013

    Social scientists are in no way “scientists,” they are instead social “engineers.” However, they are not engineers strictly speaking, i.e., those who aim to find functional solutions using whatever established truths can assist in the process. Social engineers instead pursue societal solutions that have appeal!

    Indeed, social scientists stand as consummate postmodernists (arising during the mid-to-late 18th century as an offshoot of the European Enlightenment) who think we humans have gone beyond or risen above the inconvenient constraints of natural laws discovered via scientific rationalism–with the latter providing the basis for “modernism.”

    This premise is what allows social scientists and other academics (including most modern scientists unfortunately), to disregard glaring realities that defy the pursuit of one or another utopian model, typically with a Marxist bent. Instead of the standard of evidence prevailing, postmodernists hold that intentions are more important than results, and the ends justify the means.

    Overall, while scientific pursuits without direct anthropological ties tend to be reliable; the closer the ties, the more unreliable any given scientific discipline becomes–as ideology tends to trump all else for those within the human species.

    K.D. Koratsky, Author of Living With Evolution or Dying Without It: A Guide to Understanding Humanity’s Past, Present, and Future

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  2. 2. gesimsek 5:48 pm 04/4/2013

    Since the begining of analytical analysis of nature according to law of cause and effect, it became fashionable to apply the same methodology on human beings. This required an understanding of human being as a bundle of biological, social, economical and psychological laws. The only problem in this framework was the fact that human beings carried an element of intent, that does not conform into any laws. This problem was then referred to the area of moral philosophy. There, they (Holbach, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche etc.) tried to figure out what exactly we can expect from human beings. The quest is still on.

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  3. 3. TTLG 6:28 pm 04/4/2013

    Several problems here. First is the thinking that humans are somehow special because they are more complex and variable than protons. There are many steps of increasing complexity that are fairly rigorously dealt with between the two extremes. Snowflakes are all different, but still have predictable aggregate behavior. Same for more complex molecules, viruses, single-cell animals and so on up through groups of primates and man. Each step gets harder, but there is nothing intrinsically special about the last step. Human groups can also be dealt with in rigorous scientific fashion if one goes to enough trouble.

    Also there is a difference between science and engineering. Engineers take the principles discovered by scientists and create working systems. It does not matter if it is material science and bridges or social science and governments. Even today, I think it is very possible to take what is known about human beings individually and in groups and design a system that does work for the general population rather than the select insiders as pretty much all do now. It is not the lack of understanding, but the fact that those who benefit the most from the present situation are the ones who are in control of any changes and they simply do not want any. Hence the reduction in spending on social science.

    It is kind of like building an arch. Once constructed, it is very strong, but the problem is getting it put together in the first place.

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  4. 4. N a g n o s t i c 7:50 pm 04/4/2013

    Answer – No.

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  5. 5. jduringer 8:05 pm 04/4/2013

    Points well made, gentlemen. I sincerely hope you will sell more books, Mr. Koratsky (from my eval of the title, anyways).
    Anthropological Human Universals, Primatology and an eye on technology can probably yield useful models when coupled with Transhumanist thought.
    Nevertheless, social studies students (who are not “scientists”) will never be more than pawns to the masters of the charades of politics, economics, marketing or religion.
    Live long and prosper ;-)

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  6. 6. joeshmoe 8:24 pm 04/4/2013

    What a hack. This article is dripping with condescension for a range of a academic disciplines (some of which are no less scientific than physics, despite the complexity of their subject matter, while others are less so).

    Of course he throws in the canard that evolutionary psychology does nothing but “churn out conjectures”. Guess what: that’s what science does. It invents wild “conjectures” called hypotheses, that it derives from previously established theories. And then it tests them against competing hypothesis. Google “scientific method” and read about it. But that one has been bandied about often enough, even by people who should know better, so I guess I can’t blame the author for repeating what he’s heard from others. Who would expect him to check for himself?

    Having cavalierly dismissed without argument the contributions made by thousands of researchers working in dozens of fields… (Unless you count, “If economists are so smart, how come we had a recession?” as an argument. Are you kidding me?) What positive contribution does the author make?

    “In the same way, social scientists should eschew the quest for truths about human behavior. They should instead focus more intensely on finding answers to specific problems”

    As if they haven’t been already doing that. Has author ever heard of something called clinical psychology? (Not to mention industrial/organizational psychology, health psychology, and many other fields of applied psychology, applied anthropology, etc.) So in addition to doing what we’re already doing, we should abandon basic research altogether to focus only on applied research. Brilliant.

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  7. 7. Shoshin 10:06 pm 04/4/2013

    What’s the difference between a social scientist and a climate scientist?

    Social scientists know that their subjects may be lying to them and adjust their data to attempt to arrive at the truth.

    Climate scientists know that the data aren’t lying and adjust it until it is.

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  8. 8. syzygyygyzys 12:41 am 04/5/2013

    Although, I admired Dian Fossey’s achievements, we can’t know if she truly understood what it is to be a gorilla. I don’t remember that she ever made that claim. The author has conducted a 30+ year “Engineers in the Mist” expedition. Only speaking for myself, I recommend further study.

    Scott Adams made a similar study 20 years ago.

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  9. 9. scuba steve 10:10 am 04/5/2013

    This article is absolute garbage. I agree, this guys a hack. One field of SS he could stand to learn from is survey methodology; this might help him grasp the limits of using a sample of Stevens Institute faculty, and it’s invited guests, as a representation of entire fields of researchers. Also, what kind of claim for weakness of SS is “it will never approach the precision and predictive power of the hard sciences?” Is that what makes something a hard science?

    Please go read “the science in social science” which was recently published in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences.

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  10. 10. rshoff 2:52 pm 04/5/2013

    What is science? When someone uses the word ‘science’ what exactly is being communicated? The definition is ever changing. It’s softer than ever now.

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  11. 11. Andrei Kirilyuk 3:18 pm 04/5/2013

    Social science will die together with the civilized society, soon enough, the main reason of that sad demise being unlimited spending on senseless “science”, with the key criterion of absolute uselessness and growing unsolvable problems in the funded “research”. What engendered modern society will also kill it, the perfect closure of a circle (of fools).

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  12. 12. Chris Miller 5:27 pm 04/5/2013

    I cannot better this quote from Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937):
    The only possible interpretation of any research whatever in the ‘social sciences’ is: some do, some don’t.

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  13. 13. hungry doggy 5:35 pm 04/5/2013

    “Think of all the harm done in the name of Marx – and of the social Darwinists and the free market theorists, from Herbert Spencer to Milton Friedman.”

    The above quote is unfair and ignorant. Milton Friedman in particular won the Nobel Prize in Economics, had an illustrious career at major universities including the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago, and was a respected and hughly influential theorist.

    And lumping free market theory with Communism is absurd.

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  14. 14. marclevesque 12:39 pm 04/6/2013

    Interesting. I enjoyed a lot.

    “[...] the basic units of social systems—people—are all different from each other; each person who has ever lived is unique in ways that are not trivial but essential to our humanity. Each individual mind also keeps changing in response to new experiences [...]”

    Agreed. Well said.

    My two cents, 1) Social interactions get very hard to model very fast, often to the point where it becomes clear our models are not up to it, but that only means we should persist with the science (rather than disparage the field or do away with it as some comments seem to be suggesting). 2) Subfields in the social sciences (economics, etc) cannot be more ‘solid’ that the general field.

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  15. 15. christinaak 3:47 pm 04/8/2013

    With the dominance of string theory I am not sure that Physics can still be regarded as a hard science anymore. In fact, much of quantum mechanics is little more than conjecture (at this point in history no one really understands quantum mechanics). I think Einstein was right there must be an underlying reality that explains all of the peculiarities of quantum behavior.

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  16. 16. inquirus 2:04 am 04/9/2013

    Despite the optimistic final sentence, I have to get something off my chest. I have to say that even though a few years back I used to really enjoy John Horgan’s part of science saturday on bloggingheads, I’ve come to find his articles and blogs to be the most disappointing part of scientific american, a publication that plays a very important role in society. He shows a significant bias against the progress of science, not a huge surprise as one of his books is aptly entitled, The End of Science. Though I often find his articles point toward something true, especially noting areas where claims based on science ought to be expressed with less certainty, I find though that he goes further than that useful role and now overstates and continually emphasizes what science cannot accomplish. I’m afraid that often it seems to boil down to his own personal philosophical outlook more so than drawing conclusions based on evidence or coherence. I find that a shame because he is a talented writer and I used to love what he contributed with his sense of curiosity and his eagerness to communicate what was going on, what was new, what was exciting in the realm of science. It’s sad in my opinion that that seems to have been traded in for the role of the ever ready wet blanket. John, connect with that curiosity again. At least mix it up. I have to admit that this post is based more on my impression of several articles/posts rather than on this particular one.

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  17. 17. Prairie Dog 1:18 pm 04/9/2013

    Reply to hungry doggy: JH said “… in the name of … Milton Friedman.” He did not say that Friedman himself did the harm, just that others did the harm in his name, i.e., using him for inspiration or as a source, even if they completely misinterpreted Friedman’s theories or extended them to ridiculous extremes. That’s not the same as Friedman himself doing the harm.

    As for Friedman’s Nobel Prize in Economics, big deal. Robert Merton also won a Nobel in Economics for his theory of derivatives. Remember derivatives? They’re the financial instruments that were supposed to be super safe, per Merton, because of the way they spread risk. Instead derivatives were the very instruments that, in the hands of greedy Wall St. manipulators, turned out not to be safe at all, despite Merton’s economic theories and assurances, and ultimately led to the 2008 economic collapse.

    Always remember that economists were invented to make weather forecasters look good.

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  18. 18. tuned 1:46 pm 04/9/2013

    Social sciences, etc. will die off, becoming regarding as legitimate as astrology. This of course is due to the steady inroads of both genetic research and brain mapping physical sciences. Psychology will also become less of a guess work for the same reasons.

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  19. 19. WilliamOfNormandy 5:46 pm 04/16/2013

    To quote the eminent scientist “Baron von Frankenstein (the Younger); compared to the human brain everything else is do-do! Not only do our fermions individual, they change over time and within situations. Economics can and often does predict outcomes but an economist ALWAYS caveats with ‘all other things remaining constant’- which never happens. The social sciences aren’t ‘hard’ because they are intellectually inferior, they aren’t hard because they are MUCH, MUCH ‘harder’ than physics.

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